I don’t remember how old I was, but I figure it was somewhere in the early elementary school years when I learned the concepts of heaven and hell in CCD, which is the strangely cryptic way we Catholics refer to our religious classes. Kind of like KGB. Except not at all.
I remember our teacher, Mrs. Teller, scribbling on the blackboard in the dim church basement that doubled as our classroom. She was compiling a list of behaviors that would get us into heaven, and which into hell. Now, I was a pretty good kid by most standards. But scanning Mrs. Teller’s list, I began to have some serious concerns about that time I threw my sister across the dining room table. To say nothing about that time I purposely kicked her in the vagina.
Mrs. Teller interrupted my private mental scroll of sins with even more upsetting news: there was this guy called Satan, and no, he wasn’t the make-believe stuff of horror movies. He was real, and he was trouble. As she explained that he’d once been a good angel who rebelled against God and fell from the sky like lightening, I wondered if she’d be more comfortable if she were sitting around a campfire and had a flashlight under her chin. She proceeded to explain how Satan would tempt us to do all sorts of bad things, how he could seriously mess us up and do us harm. His trickiest move? To get us to believe he didn’t even exist in the first place. BUT! We could always protect ourselves by keeping God in our hearts. Ok, so at least now she was giving us some practical advice to work with here. But how the h-e -double hockey sticks were we supposed to squeeze God in our tiny little hearts?
Surely the well-meaning Mrs. Teller was mistaken. How could this world that produced glorious things like Saturday morning cartoons and Christmas presents and Richard Simmons also give us something as purely evil and horrible as the devil? And if he really was the worst of all the bad guys out there, how was I realistically suppose to resist him? What if he just forced himself into my thoughts? What if he was hiding under my bed right now?
When I got home I sought counsel from my mother. She’d always been a straight shooter, and I knew she’d clear things right up. Even if what Mrs. Teller told us was on the up-and-up, surely she was exaggerating for effect.
“Hey Mom? So, in CCD today? Mrs. Teller told us about the devil and how bad he is and…well, but, there’s not really such a thing as the devil. Right?”
There’s totally such a thing as the devil, is basically what my mom said.
“No, but, like that’s just stuff that they put on TV and in the movies, isn’t it? I mean, there can’t really be a Satan? That sounds a little crazy.”
Satan is totally not just in the movies, was basically her reply. And then she told me to start putting paper plates on the dinner table.
Hold the phone! How could she focus on dinner after this revelation? How could she gloss over the fact that the prince of darkness was really a thing? How was she able to proceed as normal, to move through the mundanities (is that a word?) of life knowing there was a devil lurking out there just waiting to jump into her thoughts? This changed everything. And I’m also pretty sure this sparked my lifelong struggle with irrational fears and crippling anxieties. (Thanks, CCD!)
My mom, sensing my concern, paused over the Steak-umms sizzling in the frying pan.
“Listen, just say your prayers every morning and every night, be good to your brother and sister, and don’t mouth off to me or Daddy. And you should be fine.” And then she pressed her spatula against the Steak-umm shriveling in the pan.
Eastern Europeans Moms, they don’t do coddling. They’re all stark reality.
And that’s why I never kicked my sister in the vagina again.